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Side Street (Dec. 14, 1949)

Side Street
Side Street (1949)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell memorably played young lovers on the run in director Nicholas Ray’s debut film, They Live by Night (1948).

They were reunited in Side Street, a twisty little crime caper directed by the great Anthony Mann.

Side Street isn’t a grand tragedy on the level of They Live by Night. O’Donnell’s role is much smaller and she and Granger play a quietly happy young married couple, not archetypal tragic lovers. But it’s definitely worth seeing. It’s a great crime movie with memorable characters and a lot of wonderful footage of New York City.

Granger

It’s also the last in a string of tough, violent, and exceedingly well-made film noirs from Mann, who previously directed Desperate (1947), T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and Border Incident (1949), among others.

After Side Street, Mann would go on to tackle a variety of genres, although in 1950 he exclusively made westerns — Winchester ’73, The Furies, and Devil’s Doorway.

I always have more movies on my “to watch” list than I can realistically make time for, and I almost passed over Side Street. But then I looked it up and saw that it was directed by Anthony Mann, and I had to watch it. I love Mann’s sensibility, and his films are always really well-paced and full of suspense. Side Street is no exception, and if it doesn’t have the stature of some of his other noirs, it’s just because they’re so good that his “lesser” works sometimes get lost in the shuffle.

Mann did some of his best-known work with cinematographer John Alton, but Joseph Ruttenberg, who shot Side Street, was also extremely talented, and he has a lot of high-profile classics on his résumé, like The Philadelphia Story (1940), Mrs. Miniver (1942), and Gaslight (1944).

Side Street looks absolutely fantastic. The interiors live and breathe with complicated interplays of light and shadows. The exteriors are mostly shot on location in New York. Not only does Ruttenberg’s exterior shooting look great, it’s a chance to see a great deal of the city as it existed in 1949, including things that are gone now, like the elevated train tracks in Manhattan.

Craig and Granger

The story and screenplay of Side Street were written by Sydney Boehm. It’s a relatively simple story about a mailman named Joe Norson (Farley Granger) who sees an opportunity to pilfer a large sum of money and takes it. His wife, Ellen Norson (Cathy O’Donnell) is pregnant with their first child, and he thinks a lump sum of cash is their ticket to the good life. Of course, the person he steals money from is a crooked lawyer with his fingers in the underworld, and Joe’s life quickly spirals out of control as he is hunted by extremely dangerous people while lying to his wife about where he got the money.

All the actors are great, and their characters seem like real people; Edmon Ryan as the shady lawyer, James Craig as his brutal enforcer, Charles McGraw and Paul Kelly as NYPD detectives, and Adele Jergens as a seductress who is part of a honey-pot blackmail scheme. I liked all the actors, but my absolute favorite was Jean Hagen (recently seen in Adam’s Rib), who plays a cynical nightclub singer and B-girl. Her scene with Farley Granger involves him buying drinks to get information out of her, and she delivers her digressive dialogue perfectly as she very convincingly portrays slowly building intoxication. Like Gloria Grahame in Crossfire (1947), she expresses a lifetime of experience, most of it bad.

Jean Hagen

Everything about Side Street holds up well, and I recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a twisty thriller. Aside from the black and white cinematography, the only thing that might rankle modern viewers is Paul Kelly’s intrusive voiceover, but that was a pretty standard feature of police dramas in the late 1940s.

I especially liked that Farley Granger’s character wasn’t an innocent victim of circumstance. He makes a very clear decision to break the law, but it’s the kind of crime of opportunity most of us have probably considered at least once in our lives.

What would happen if we walked into an empty, unlocked house and poked around? What would happen if we took a joyride in an unattended car with the motor running? What would happen if we swiped an envelope we know is full of cash? Side Street presents a worst-case-scenario answer to that question in a way that’s labyrinthine but fairly believable. Highly recommended.

Sands of Iwo Jima (Dec. 14, 1949)

Sands of Iwo Jima
Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)
Directed by Allan Dwan
Republic Pictures

In my recent review of Battleground (1949), I discussed whether or not it should be seen as an “anti-war film.” I absolutely don’t think that it should be, but I do think that it’s a sensitive portrait of the stress and fear that the “battered bastards of Bastogne” experienced during the Battle of the Bulge.

In my review of Battleground I also argued that it was not the first film about World War II to depict soldiers as three-dimensional people who experience fear and doubt, even though plenty of reviews claim that it was. But the depth of the characterizations made Battleground a significant war movie, and the fact that it was the first major war movie released after the end of World War II was significant, too.

However, shortly after the release of Battleground came a movie not about soldiers, but about marines, and it’s exactly the kind of movie people are imagining when they call Battleground a “revisionist” war movie or an anti-war film.

I really enjoyed Sands of Iwo Jima, but with its gung-ho attitude towards war, heroism, manhood, and patriotism, it’s diametrically opposed to Battleground. Just about the only things the two movies have in common are that they’re both about World War II, and both feature Richard Jaeckel in a small role.

John Wayne as Stryker

Sands of Iwo Jima stars John Wayne as the alcoholic, tough-as-nails leatherneck Sgt. John M. Stryker. As his ass-kicking surname implies, Sgt. Stryker is the kind of non-com who doesn’t care if his men like him; he only cares about whipping them into a fighting force that thinks and moves as one man so they can give the Japs hell. During training, one of the marines looks at Stryker and growls, “I don’t know which I hate worse, him or the Nips.”

John Wayne received his first Oscar nomination for best actor for this film. I’ve heard that Wayne felt he should have been nominated for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) instead, but I thought his performance in that film was overly affected. His role in Sands of Iwo Jima played much better to his strengths.

The human drama in the film focuses on PFC Peter Conway (John Agar), whose father served under Sgt. Stryker. Conway comes from a family with a long tradition of service in the US Marine Corps, and when Stryker talks, all Conway can hear is his father.

Jaekel Wayne and Agar

There’s humor in Sands of Iwo Jima, but most of it comes in the form of macho posturing. There are the Flynn brothers (played by Richard Jaeckel and William Murphy), two PFCs who can’t go a day without getting in a fistfight. And there’s a scene where a sailor tries to cut in on Conway’s slow dance with a pretty blonde named Allison Bromley (Adele Mara), and he snaps, “Shove off, Mac.” (Take that, US Navy! You can give the USMC a ride to the battle, but don’t step on their toes, punks.)

But the high point of Sands of Iwo Jima are the elaborate battle scenes, which take place in two sections; first the assault on Tarawa and then the assault on Iwo Jima.

BAR

When an officer is showing the men a map of an island that is part of the Tarawa atoll, he says, “Don’t ask me how you spell it. You’ll have to stick your faces into it, but you don’t have to spell it.” He goes on to tell them that the Japanese troops are dug in pretty deep. “They’d just as soon die as stick a nickel in a jukebox. But that’s all right. Let the other guy die for his country. You live for yours!”

The action is fast and furious, which is appropriate, since this film depicts some of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of World War II.

Flamethrower

Sands of Iwo Jima was produced by Republic Pictures, which mostly made lower-budgeted films, so it doesn’t have the high production values that MGM brought to Battleground. The battle scenes in Sands of Iwo Jima incorporate a good deal of newsreel footage, which adds some authenticity to the film, but occasionally makes the newly filmed segments look a little fake. The filmmakers did as well as they could. The special effects were by Waldo and Theodore Lydecker, who did fantastic work in numerous Republic serials, and the demolition effects were carried out by the USMC. But the newsreel footage of actual fighting occasionally took me out of the picture by reminding me that most of what I was seeing was a Hollywood recreation.

Not long after Sands of Iwo Jima was released, Henry King’s Twelve O’Clock High (1949) hit theaters. It was the third major film about World War II released in 1949, several years after the war had ended. Battleground was significant for being the first, but three makes a pattern, and shows that after a few years of tranquility on the silver screen, audiences were once again hungry for simulated wartime mayhem. (A more cynical view might be that Hollywood was ginning up support for the coming conflict in Korea.)

Undertow (Dec. 1, 1949)

Undertow1949
Undertow (1949)
Directed by William Castle
Universal International Pictures

This review originally appeared last year at Film Noir of the Week.

William Castle is best remembered as the P.T. Barnum of schlock cinema. Castle was a director, producer, and huckster who sold his flicks to the public with brilliant gimmicks. Anyone who bought a ticket to Macabre (1958) was insured by Lloyd’s of London against “death by fright” while watching the picture. People who went to see The Tingler (1959) took a chance that they might be joy-buzzed if they were lucky enough to sit in one of the right seats. And people who bought a ticket to see the Psycho-inspired film Homicidal (1961) were promised their money back if they walked out during the one-minute “Fright Break” before the climax of the film. Provided, that is, they were willing to stand on display in the “Coward’s Corner” in the lobby until after the film ended.

What people tend to forget, however, is that before he made Macabre, Castle was a hard-working, dependable director of low-budget studio pictures. He was under contract at Columbia Pictures from 1944 to 1947, where he made several films in the Whistler series and the Crime Doctor series, as well as B noirs like When Strangers Marry (1944), which starred Robert Mitchum and Kim Hunter.

While under contract with Universal in 1949, Castle directed two B noirs, Johnny Stool Pigeon, which starred Howard Duff and Shelley Winters, and Undertow, which starred Lawrence Tierney’s little brother, Scott Brady.

Just like his big brother’s loony film noir classic Born to Kill (1947), Undertow starts out in “The Biggest Little City in the World” — Reno.

Scott Brady

Brady plays a good-natured, average guy named Tony Reagan who’s just gotten out of the Army after a seven-year stint (he stayed in for another hitch after the war). All Tony wants to do is help his dead war buddy’s dad run the Mile High Lodge, 40 miles north of Reno, and spend the rest of his days hunting and fishing. The only thing he has to do first is fly to Chicago to see his best girl, Sally Lee (Dorothy Hart), and convince her uncle — gambler “Big” Jim Lee — that he’s good enough to marry her.

While in Reno, however, Tony runs into his old friend Danny Morgan (John Russell). Danny tries to convince Tony he’d be better off helping him run his casino. His sales pitch to Tony is: “Lots of sunshine, steady supply of suckers. And loads of lovely, lonely, loaded ladies.”

As I said, Tony is a good-natured, average guy, and even though he knows his way around a craps table, he’d rather put that part of his life behind him.

If you’re a fan of film noirs, however, you know that good-natured average guys who’ve just rotated out of the service are statistically the most likely people to have a murder rap pinned on them and be forced to flee from both the cops and the bad guys.

Brady Blindfolded

Arthur T. Horman and Lee Loeb’s screenplay for Undertow is standard stuff. It’s fine for what it is, but it’s not that different from any number of other B noirs about an innocent man on the run. However, Undertow is worth seeking out for several reasons.

First off, the direction is great. Castle knew how to make an entertaining, fast-moving film, and Undertow is one of his better pictures from the 1940s. Another reason to see Undertow is all of the location shooting in Reno and Chicago, which is rare for a 70-minute programmer.

Castle does more than just throw in a few establishing shots. When Tony Reagan first arrives in Chicago, he heads for the Palmer House hotel, then attempts to lose a police tail while walking down South Wabash Avenue and running up into the elevated train station on the corner. Two scenes in Undertow take place at Buckingham Fountain, and at one point Tony meets his friend Ann McKnight (Peggy Dow) and his girlfriend Sally at the John G. Shedd Aquarium. The people in the background in the street scenes don’t look like Hollywood extras, either.

Another reason to see Undertow is to catch Rock Hudson in a very small role. This was the first credit Hudson received for a motion picture. He previously appeared in one other film, Fighter Squadron (1948), but his name didn’t appear in the credits. In Undertow he’s credited as “Roc” Hudson. He appears as a Chicago police detective for about one minute toward the end of the film in a scene in which he discusses a case with Det. Chuck Reckling, played by Bruce Bennett.

Hudson and Bennett

I’ve seen a lot of Lawrence Tierney’s films, but I’ve only recently seen films starring his younger brother, Scott Brady (whose real name was Gerard Kenneth Tierney). Brady very closely resembles his older brother. It would probably be difficult for most people who’d never seen either of them before to tell them apart.

But while Lawrence Tierney played nasty, sociopathic characters the way other actors pick up the phone and say, “Hello?,” Scott Brady projected a general air of decency. From what I’ve seen of him so far, his performances aren’t as memorable as Tierney’s, but he’s perfect for this kind of role.

Finally, one last reason to see Undertow is for some truly outstanding bits of noir photography by Castle and his cinematographers, Irving Glassberg and Clifford Stine. The location shooting establishes the world of the film nicely, and is fascinating from a historical perspective, but it’s scenes like the climactic chase down a dark hallway that really tie the film together.

Dark Hallway

Tension (Nov. 25, 1949)

Tension
Tension (1949)
Directed by John Berry
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I recently did an MGM double bill and watched John Berry’s Tension right after I watched George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib (1949).

After the wit, charm, and progressive gender politics of Adam’s Rib, I was turned off by the first reel of Tension and its tale of infidelity and murder. Audrey Totter is the classic femme fatale with no motivation, backstory, or realistic psychology. She’s just bad because she wants to be.

Ditto for her nebbishy husband played by Richard Basehart, who puts up with being cuckolded to such a ridiculous degree that I wanted to reach into the movie, slap him around, and tell him to stop deluding himself and just get a divorce, already.

Audrey Totter in Tension

But after the plot took one crazy turn after another, Tension totally won me over. The plotting is byzantine but never confusing, the performances are all solid, Allen Rivkin’s screenplay (based on a story by John D. Klorer) is clever and engaging, the score by André Previn is terrific, and the film offers a chance to see the lovely Cyd Charisse in a rare non-dancing role. Also, as an MGM production, Tension looks absolutely fantastic, and features a lot of great location shooting in and around Los Angeles.

Richard Basehart brings the same chameleonic everyman qualities to his role in Tension that he brought to his role in He Walked by Night (1948). Unlike that film, however, Basehart isn’t a trigger-happy sociopath in Tension, he’s just an average guy who changes his appearance to commit murder after he’s pushed to the edge by his cheating wife.

Richard Basehart

Basehart plays a pharmacist named Warren Quimby who works the night shift to make enough money to buy a house in the suburbs for himself and his wife, Claire (Audrey Totter). Unfortunately, she’s as faithless as the day is long, and she runs off with a hairy, knuckle-dragging he-man named Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough).

After Barney Deager beats the tar out of Warren Quimby when he confronts Deager and his wife on the beach, Quimby vows revenge. He gets a pair of contact lenses to change his appearance and moves into an apartment under an assumed name. By creating a person who doesn’t exist, he thinks he’ll be able to murder Barney Deager and get away with it.

Events quickly spiral out of Quimby’s control, as they tend to in film noirs.

He falls for his pretty neighbor, Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse), who falls even harder for him, his murder plot goes badly awry, and before he knows it, he’s in up to his neck as a dogged pair of homicide detectives played by Barry Sullivan and William Conrad are on his trail.

Tension isn’t exactly a realistic film, but it’s one of the most fun and twistiest noirs I’ve seen in a long time.

Adam’s Rib (Nov. 18, 1949)

Adam's Rib
Adam’s Rib (1949)
Directed by George Cukor
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I haven’t seen all the movies Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made together, but of the ones I have seen, Adam’s Rib is easily my favorite. It’s hard to imagine a better vehicle for their talents.

In Adam’s Rib they play a married couple, Adam and Amanda Bonner, who are both lawyers. The Bonners have a loving marriage, but they’re both prickly and opinionated, and when they end up in the same courtroom on opposing sides of an attempted murder case, their quietly simmering battle of the sexes becomes a full-blown war. (Tracy and Hepburn were a couple in real life, but they were never married. Tracy was separated from his wife, but his Catholic faith precluded a divorce.)

Hepburn and Tracy

Before Adam’s Rib, Hepburn and Tracy had appeared together in George Stevens’s Woman of the Year (1942), George Cukor’s Keeper of the Flame (1942), Harold S. Bucquet’s Without Love (1945), Elia Kazan’s The Sea of Grass (1947), and Frank Capra’s State of the Union (1948).

The director of Adam’s Rib, George Cukor, directed one of my favorite films from 1947, A Double Life. He is probably most famous for directing The Philadelphia Story (1940), which starred Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart.

Adam’s Rib was written by the same husband-and-wife team who wrote the screenplay for A Double Life, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon. (Ruth Gordon also acted, and had memorable turns as an older actress in Rosemary’s Baby and Harold and Maude.)

Kanin and Gordon

I loved A Double Life, but it’s a dark psychological drama about murder and madness, and couldn’t be more different from Adam’s Rib, which is an effervescent comedy, so it was fun to see the same writers and director making an equally good film about a completely different subject.

Adam’s Rib is not just a yuk-fest. While I laughed a lot, its take on gender relations is thought-provoking stuff; not only because it’s so different from most other Hollywood movies of the time, but because so much of it is still relevant.

Society may be less forgiving of male infidelity nowadays, but double standards are still rife. There’s a great scene early in the film in which Amanda Bonner asks her secretary, Grace (Eve March), why infidelity is “not nice” if it’s a man stepping out but “something terrible” if a woman does it.

Her secretary shrugs and says, “I don’t make the rules.” Hepburn responds, “Sure you do, we all do.”

The acknowledgement that we are all complicit in creating standards of “male” and “female” behavior is rare in motion pictures today, and was even rarer mid-century.

I also loved all the subtle bits in the film, like when a shot of the exterior of the courthouse implies that Amanda Bonner’s client may not — as a woman — get a fair trial.

Equal justice

The woman in question is Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday), a ditzy simpleton who emptied a revolver in the general direction of her husband, Warren Attinger (Tom Ewell), and her husband’s mistress, Beryl Caighn (Jean Hagen). She wounded her husband, and is on trial for attempted murder.

Assistant District Attorney Adam Bonner pulls the case and prepares to prosecute Mrs. Attinger, but his wife, Amanda Bonner, begins to needle him about the specifics. When he decides he’s had enough and tells her he hates it when she gets “all cause-y,” it’s the last straw, and she offers her services as a defense attorney to Mrs. Attinger.

One thing I loved about the film was how well Tracy and Hepburn were able to convey their physical tenderness toward each other even when they were arguing. The Bonners are an extremely believable married couple, which is rare to see in the movies.

The supporting cast are all good, although David Wayne’s performance as the Bonners’ amorous across-the-hall neighbor was a little campy and over-the-top for my taste.

Still, this is a great film, and a truly funny and highly literate comedy. Adam’s Rib is a sure bet for my list of the best films of 1949.

The Golden Stallion (Nov. 15, 1949)

The Golden Stallion
The Golden Stallion (1949)
Directed by William Witney
Republic Pictures

Of the more than 70 oaters that starred Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and Trigger (the smartest horse in the movies), The Golden Stallion is the best known by today’s film geeks.

The reason for this is an article published in the September 15, 2000, issue of the NY Times called “Whoa, Trigger! Auteur Alert!”, in which Quentin Tarantino waxed rhapsodic about the films of William Witney.

I remember reading the article when it was first published and being immensely pleased. The writer of the piece accurately called Witney “a now all-but-forgotten journeyman director,” but I’ve been a fan of his serials since I was in high school. I watched a lot of serials when I was younger, and it was hard not to notice that the cream of the crop all bore his name as director. Along with his frequent co-director, John English, Witney made one memorable Republic serial after another, like Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Jungle Girl (1941), Spy Smasher (1942), The Crimson Ghost (1946), and others too numerous to list here.

In the postwar era the market for serials started to dry up, and Witney turned to making westerns for Republic Pictures, including many with Roy Rogers. Tarantino loves what Witney did with Rogers’s films during this period.

“After their first few movies together,” Tarantino said, “Witney had gotten Roy out of his fringe-and-sparkle attire and was dressing him in normal attire, blue jeans and stuff. They stopped being these crazy musicals. He turned them into rough, tough violent adventures.”

Golden Stallion lobby card

Tarantino is absolutely right. Witney was an old hand at directing knock-down drag-out fistfights in serials, and he brought this experience to his features with Roy Rogers.

The best fight I’ve seen in a Roy Rogers film that Witney directed is probably the one in Bells of San Angelo (1947), but all of their collaborations had plenty of action, and The Golden Stallion is no exception. What I found most impressive about The Golden Stallion were not any of the fight scenes, but rather the scenes of Trigger galloping at the head of a herd of wild horses. These sequence appear to have been filmed from a jeep, and they’re full of speed and drama.

So is The Golden Stallion — as Tarantino claims — the best film that Witney and Rogers made together?

That’s hard for me to say, because their films were of such a consistent level of quality (for better and for worse). Like all of their other films, The Golden Stallion had a low budget, a tight shooting schedule, and hokey humor. But it has a better-than-average plot (about a gang smuggling uncut diamonds over the border hidden in horseshoes nailed to the hooves of wild horses), a great scene where Roy has to make an enormous sacrifice to save Trigger’s life, and some really beautiful filmmaking.

If you like B westerns — especially if you like B westerns with singing cowboys — you really can’t go wrong with any of the Roy Rogers films that Witney directed. But if you’re unsure about B westerns and you want to see just one, check out The Golden Stallion. Just make sure you watch the full version, which is 67 minutes long. There’s a truncated version that’s less than an hour long currently on YouTube, but the full color version is available to stream if you’re an Amazon Prime member.

Battleground (Nov. 9, 1949)

Battleground
Battleground (1949)
Directed by William A. Wellman
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

A lot of reviews of Battleground claim it was the first World War II movie to portray servicemen as fully human characters who experience fear and doubt, and not just as inspirational patriotic figures.

Whoever thinks this has probably not seen very many World War II movies made between 1941 and 1945. While Americans have never been great at understanding our enemies, we have always been good at exploring the vulnerability, fears, and doubts that our own soldiers experience in combat. Everything from Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895) to Lewis Milestone’s film version of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) presented nuanced views of men under fire.

During World War II, Hollywood films about the war tended to lionize servicemen and depict America’s involvement as vitally necessary, but the better ones, like Mervyn LeRoy’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) (with script by Dalton Trumbo), were also great human dramas.

I think the most significant antecedents to Battleground were two other films about men in the infantry: The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and A Walk in the Sun (1945).

A Walk in the Sun was directed by Lewis Milestone, the man who directed All Quiet on the Western Front. It attempts to depict the mind of the American infantryman, through both dialogue and rambling internal monologues (a technique Terrence Malick would later use in The Thin Red Line). In keeping with the POV of the soldiers, the viewer is kept mostly in the dark about the larger significance of the violence, which punctuates the film in terrifying and confusing bursts.

The Story of G.I. Joe starred Burgess Meredith as embedded combat reporter Ernie Pyle and co-starred Robert Mitchum as the commanding officer of Company C, 18th Infantry. It was directed by William A. Wellman, the man who directed Battleground. Just like Battleground, the scenes of violence were swift and brutal, but the focus for most of the film was on the infantrymen themselves, and the boredom, extreme physical discomfort, and drudgery punctuated by fear that everyone who serves in combat experiences. Also like Battleground, most of the extras in The Story of G.I. Joe were actual soldiers who had served in combat.

Johnson and Hodiak

The big studios dumped most of their existing war movies in theaters not long after V-E Day and V-J Day in 1945, rightly assuming that the public had little interest in war movies once the war was over. In the few years that followed, plenty of movies dealt with veterans’ homecomings (The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946, was the finest of these films), but I’m hard pressed to think of any American films from this period that directly dealt with the experience of combat. The only one I can think of is Mervyn LeRoy’s Homecoming (1948), but all of the fighting in that film was just the backdrop for a passionate and illicit romance between Clark Gable and Lana Turner.

So Battleground was unique in that it was a return to films about World War II that focused on the combat experience. Producer Dore Schary brought the project with him to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer when he left RKO Radio Pictures. It was a passion project for him, and he really had to fight to get it to the screen, since MGM head Louis B. Mayer believed that the public was still tired of war films.

Schary’s persistence paid off. His tribute to the “battered bastards of Bastogne” was a huge hit with audiences, and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. (It took home two Oscars, one for Best Story and Screenplay, and one for Best Cinematography, Black & White.)

As I said earlier, Battleground is firmly in the tradition of humanistic portraits of ordinary soldiers like The Story of G.I. Joe and A Walk in the Sun, but it does go further than any films made during World War II depicting how scared many ordinary infantrymen really were, and how strongly they could desire to be far, far away from the fighting.

One character in Battleground is counting the days until he rotates out of the Army, and is furious when he’s told that they’re surrounded by the Germans, and he’s not going anywhere. But typically of the film, he steels his courage and eventually manages to make jokes about how the Germans are committing war crimes by shooting at him, a civilian. Another character has a full set of false teeth, which he loses and then tries to be given medical leave for a few days. (That character is played by Douglas Fowley, who really did lose his teeth in an explosion while serving on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.)

At one point in the film, two soldiers retreat and have to leave behind a wounded man, who hides himself from the Germans by crawling under the wreck of a jeep and covering himself with snow. The film never depicts any of the men’s acts as cowardly; they are badly outnumbered, and doing anything else would have been suicide for all of them.

The Oscar-winning screenplay of Battleground was written by Robert Pirosh, who served as a master sergeant with the 35th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge. Pirosh based his script partly on his own experiences, but the film details the exploits of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, so Lt. Col. Harry Kinnard, who had been the deputy divisional commander of the 101st at Bastogne, served as technical advisor. More than a dozen veterans of the 101st appeared as extras in the film and worked with the actors to ensure accuracy. (The film is relatively accurate except for a plot about German soldiers moving through the lines who are disguised as Allied soldiers, but this can be forgiven in the interest of creating suspense and tension. It is, after all, “only a movie.”)

SPAM

The actors are all great, and many of them had actually served in combat. James Whitmore, who plays Sgt. Kinnie and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role, served in the Marine Corps in World War II. James Arness, who would go on to star in the 20-year run of Gunsmoke on TV, has a small role in the film, and was the most decorated soldier among the cast. (Arness was severely wounded at Anzio, and received the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the World War II Victory Medal, the Combat Infantryman Badge, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze battle stars.)

Consequently, Battleground is one of the most authentic World War II movies you will ever see, even though it might not seem that way to a viewer who has been weaned on the bloody CGI horrors of 21st-century war movies. However, if you’re conversant in the language of film, and can read what is being written on and off the screen, there’s one sequence that’s as brutal as anything you’ll ever see in a war film. Our heroes are surprised by German troops and in a fast-moving sequence, Ricardo Montalban rips a German soldier’s throat out with his teeth, Van Johnson stabs a German soldier to death with his bayonet, and John Hodiak bashes in the skull of a German soldier with the stock of his rifle.

I’ve read reviews of Battleground that refer to it as an “anti-war film.” I don’t know if this point of view springs from Steven Spielberg’s ridiculous assertion, made around the time that the philosophically incoherent Saving Private Ryan (1998) was released, that “every war movie, good or bad, is an anti-war movie,” but it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Although very few Hollywood films can simply be called “pro-war” films, a truly “anti-war” film would have to condemn any kind of armed conflict and celebrate pacifism as a viable and noble alternative. A truly “anti-war” film could not depict death and destruction in a highly aestheticized way, like Apocalypse Now (1979). And it could not celebrate the value of brotherhood under fire, as do Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down (2001). No film that celebrates soldiers nobly putting their lives on the line for the greater good can ever be called an “anti-war movie,” any more than The Passion of the Christ (2004) can by called an “anti-crucifixion movie.”

I’m not condemning Battleground because it’s not an anti-war movie. I even thought the short, moving scene in which an Army chaplain explains why he thinks America’s involvement in the war is vitally necessary was one of the best bits of the movie.

But today is Memorial Day, and I think it’s worth considering, as we honor the sacrifice of people who laid down their lives overseas, that no war movie can ever replicate the experience of combat. No matter how realistic, the viewer is watching from a position of safety. And every war film is a tale told by survivors. The dead no longer have a voice.

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